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©Retna Ltd. / Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag
© Retna Ltd. / Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag
Wild Flag: Indie Vets' Triumphant Second Act

The female quartet's New York show rekindles a great guitar rock legacy

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

Before there was Wild Flag there was "Portlandia," but well before "Portlandia" there was Sleater-Kinney. For the decade surrounding the year 2000, this all-female trio from Olympia, Wash., with powerhouse vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker, tomboy guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein, and a bunch of drum dynamos climaxing with the great Janet Weiss -- who has also put in tours with the Go-Betweens, Bright Eyes, the Jicks and others -- was the best guitar band in America. That's why the cross-country all-female quartet Wild Flag comprising Brownstein, Weiss, ex-Helium Mary Timony on guitar and ex-Minder Rebecca Coles on organ got indie vets so excited.

Although Corin dominated Sleater-Kinney by a slight but decisive margin, I was always a Carrie guy myself, and I wasn't the only one. Lots of fellas like their gals cute, funny, feisty and sharp as nails; never mind whether or not they're lesbians, because this preference is aesthetic, whatever its erotic correlative. So I was surprised to find that although I surely enjoyed Wild Flag's eponymous 2011 debut, I preferred the Corin Tucker Band's less heralded 2010 "1,000 Years," a heartfelt side project with much to say about keeping a family together while your husband roves in pursuit of a filmmaker's paycheck. And while admiring the loopy brilliance of  "Portlandia", the associative sketch comedy Brownstein devised for the Independent Film Channel with her cross-country BFF, "Saturday Night Live" mainstay Fred Armisen, I glimpsed a reason there.

In "Portlandia," both stars assume multiple roles in plots where resolution is of less moment than goofball incident and what-she-say? laugh lines. So say that as an artist and maybe as a person, the multi-talented Brownstein has trouble maintaining a fixed identity -- and that for her, one attraction of a rock 'n' roll band is that it imposes on a role to play that becomes a core reality. I attended Wild Flag's show at Manhattan's Webster Hall on April 1 hoping to see how this was working out for her.

Although the music was fine from the outset, I was put off at first. Never a big fan of the dreamy Timony, I expected Brownstein to direct the music Weiss was driving, but she seemed all too detached as she sang the disquieted lyric of "Short Version," her first lead, which while incomprehensible in the live racket presumably signified to her anyway: "When the feeling comes/You know it's gonna pass you by." The rocker role she was playing didn't feel to me like a reality. But six or seven songs in and that changed, first with a wild new Brownstein feature called "Winter Pair" and then on the rave-up that climaxes "Glass Tambourine," with Brownstein not so much shredding as clanging and booming. This was the power of music in action: an alternate reality that can subsume one's sense of self while enlarging it -- the player's and the listener's too.

The second half of the concert was far more involved and involving than the first, with the promising extra that it featured three excitable new songs, two of them Timony's. The concert proper climaxed with two known keepers -- "Racehorse," with its wickedly non-indie tagline "We're in the money," and "Romance," with its clearly audible credo "Sound is the blood between me and you." The encore followed Timony's brave if not quite convincing seizure of Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" with two terrific Brownstein covers: "Do You Wanna Dance?" as a good-hearted rocker that owed the Ramones, and then one she warned we wouldn't recognize. I pegged it as a Patti Smith B-side until I searched "untraceable untranslatable" and learned it was "Margin Walker" by Fugazi.

Ramones, then Fugazi-qua-Patti-Smith? That's her idea of a viable identity? Why the hell not?

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006

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